The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.

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The Old Firm Derby

I love the Old Firm Derby. Without really caring who wins—you know how it is—I usually pull for Celtic, for four reasons:

  1. Nakamura blows my mind.
  2. They’re always exciting in the Champions League (see Man Utd and #1; also, remember the Dida Tumble?)
  3. The hoops. In the words of my favorite blogging cartoon cat, they’re stone-cold unquestionable.
  4. For some reason, I know a lot of their songs. I don’t know where I picked them up—maybe because they’ve been borrowed by so many of the Liverpool clubs?—but at some point last year they were playing Milan in Celtic Park, and I found myself mumbling the songs along with the crowd, as if I’d stumbled into the holodeck and found I could suddenly understand French. (Not sure if that makes sense.)

Anyway, whoever wins—it was Rangers today, 1-0 at Ibrox, in a match that probably gives them the title—I love the Old Firm Derby. It’s all wet spray on the pitch and “he’s having a run at him now.” The kits are very, very bright, but it says “Northern Steel Stock” on the advertising hoardings. The ball seems unnaturally heavy, and the players are a strange combination of brute force and finesse, as if everything they do has to be counterpoised by the idea of 1875. It’s a rusty locomotive of a game that’s fronting like it’s Japanese superrail, and sometimes, because it thinks it can, it winds up going 150 miles an hour.

Culturally, I’m on shaky ground with this. A lot of what looks like “atmosphere” to me probably feels like more than atmosphere if you’re on the receiving end of decades of intricate rivalry. Glasgow itself is bewildering—fey enough to be bicycled through by Stuart Murdoch, yet full of burly airport guards wrestling immolating cars to the ground—and I think the political/historical roots and the exact composition of potential violent impulses are hard for Americans to gauge. I try to imagine a basketball team called the Boston Rangers that would crystallize anti-Catholic sentiment and track Irish politics for generations of Lowells and Cabots, but it doesn’t really work, because everyone voted for the Kennedys, right? Sometimes it seems like the more I follow this rivalry the less I understand about whether the nifty tunes I’m humming are actually about putting other people to death.

I love it anyway, if not solely as a proposition of football, then certainly also as a proposition of football. All that slowly-down-the-wings, short-clearance, death-by-cresting-tension is really something to see. You can tell that both teams are used to crushing everyone they play, and yet they can’t crush each other. To me, at least—and this may be the best thing that can be said about the “Big Two plus everyone else” hierarchy that seems to exist in most smaller football countries (Spain, what’s your excuse)—there’s something kind of wonderful about not-quite-world-class players flush with alpha-team confidence in their side’s superiority. It’s like opera at safe speeds. The flair is slowed down just enough for you to follow it and you’re guaranteed the maximum of second-tier flash.

There’s a melancholic aspect to the game, too, but it’s hard to describe: the play is almost always entertaining, but the experience feels like something to endure rather than something to enjoy. But then, maybe because the stakes are so low at the same time as they’re so high, that somehow takes place in a way that’s also enjoyable. Today, Steven Davis scored a goal and the Rangers defense kept Celtic out for the only home win in the Old Firm games this year. It didn’t really make sense, but when I heard that last fact I thought, “But no home team should ever win the Old Firm Derby.” It’s a game that’s lost somewhere between misty heroics and a gunpowder ache in the bones.

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The Old Firm Derby

by Brian Phillips · May 9, 2009

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